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The black box - a Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) and a Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) - stores hundreds of data-points, including information about an aircraft's performance, speed, braking and system status, as well as records of conversations between the pilots. These will be critical in helping aviation investigators understand what happened and have been sent to Delhi for analysis.
Flightradar24, a Swedish flight tracker website that displays real-time commercial flight movement, indicated IX-1344 circled the airport and tried to land twice. A DGCA investigator told news agency ANI the pilots faced difficulties landing on their designated runway before making an attempt from the opposite side, during which the plane skidded, overshot and crashed.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, who visited the crash site today, said the plane had enough fuel to attempt a diversionary landing elsewhere. Mr Puri also appealed for calm while the DGCA conducts its inquiry and ordered compensation for the injured and families of those killed. Compensation was also ordered by the Kerala government.
The flight was operating under the Vande Bharat Mission to repatriate Indians stranded abroad because of the coronavirus lockdown. There were 184 people on board the plane, including 10 babies and four crew members. The injured are being treated at 13 hospitals in and around Kozhikode airport and city, Union Minister V Muraleedharan told NDTV.
The tabletop runway at Kozhikode airport, which has suffered serious damage after incessant rains in the past, had been flagged as a hazard. A top expert released a report nine years ago that said "the runway has a steep downslope (and) no safety area". "They were warned... given proof but they continued to operate and declared the airport safe," Captain Mohan Ranganathan said.
A tabletop runway is a runway on the top of a plateau or hill, with one or both ends adjacent to a steep elevation that drops into a gorge. Such an airport presents pilots with a challenge when landing. Conditions at the time of flight IX-1344's landing - heavy monsoon rain made the runway's surface slick - were an additional challenge.
However, speaking to NDTV today, V Muraleedharan played down concerns about the runway's safety, pointing out that over the past three months "hundreds of flights have landed at the same runway" as part of the central government's Vande Bharat Mission to bring back Indians stranded abroad by the coronavirus lockdown.
The pilots, both of whom were killed in the crash, have been identified as Wing Commander Deepak Vasant Sathe and Captain Akhilesh Kumar. The Wing Commander was a decorated former Indian Air Force fighter pilot who also flew planes for Air India before moving on to Air India Express. Co-pilot Akhilesh Kumar had gotten married just last year.
A worse tragedy was averted because the plane did not catch fire after the crash. In the heavy downpour, rescue personnel, including local policemen, pulled out people from the debris and jagged pieces of the plane's fuselage scattered on a slope. Little children, wailing in fear, were found trapped under seats. A survivor told ANI "everyone was crying".
President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are among those to have expressed grief. "Pained by the plane accident in Kozhikode. My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones. May the injured recover at the earliest," PM Modi tweeted. An aircraft from Mumbai also took "Angels of Air India" - grief counsellors - and other employees to coordinate relief and assistance.
With input from ANI
Helplines: Air India Express - 1800 2222 71, Airport Control Room - 0483 2719493, Malappuram Collectorate - 0483 2736320, Kozhikode Collectorate - 0495 2376901